Now that I have died, I see all and know all, and there’s nothing I can do about it. Before, the frustration would’ve been intolerable, but the instruction would’ve been the same—let things go from your hands, watch them land where they will and be glad, be decent and do your best, take care of those who love you, make your bed, do the nastiest job of the day first—no lessons that require divine revelation, you see, only common sense, nothing supernatural. Consider how jangled the world would be if our judgment from beyond continued to mean anything. Not to say that having the power to reach down into lives to lift burdens and simplify sticky situations wouldn’t be thrilling. From all indications, though, it wouldn’t be the best use of a brief allotment of time and imaginative longing to consider our leaving as anything other than a final journey. And take a tip— memories are all we’re capable of offering in the way of influence.
People who have loved us tend to leave the rooms we lie in committed to do more, see more, and so be able to die sometime in the distant future with more honor and fewer regrets than they believe we took with us. They can wonder so intently at the meaning of it all that an answer which may have been stranded inside them, abandoned, or atrophied from disuse will finally, suddenly, make itself heard. Despite their conviction that intimations of how to live better lives felt far too urgent and true to have arisen from any ordinary thing, lessons that matter always come on the heels of the simple act of remembering words and acts of love given to them by the person they’ve had to close the door on.
Mothers and wives are naturally inclined to notice large and small improvements individuals could be making in their lives, but it doesn’t take death to prove the futility of trying to coordinate people to behave according to directions you prefer, or to believe what you know to be an indisputable truth. A living, even partially alert mother knows the limits of her ability to change a mind if she happens to have a grown child like mine who turns away from any evidence that his successes would be less impressive were it not for his parents’ willingness to get up at dawn and work until dark. Specific memories of love, though, once they begin coming in through the grieving, are invariably dependable revelations, which can be trusted to finish transformations we weren’t able to see completed.
Living in love for seventy-three years kept me immune to a great deal of frustration. From the instant in 1925 when the eight-year-old boy who would eventually be my husband squinted up from a mud hole he was stirring with a long stick on the long dirt road that passed by my house and his outside Rome, Georgia, adoration contained all the possibilities of freedom and trust. Our first conversation was chiefly made up of debate over why a new girl who’d just moved from Athens, a college town even small children learned to disparage, felt righteous enough to suggest that he was going to drive the stick up into his head if he continued to pick his dirty nose with it.
He said I seemed like a person who liked to dictate. “You look like them that like to try out to be the boss of somebody, but I got a mama, though she don’t smile correcting.”
“I always smile,” I told him, “when I’m doing something I’m good at.”
“The teachers don’t give out lessons on the first day, but I bet you’re going to make up some hard homework for all your doll babies soon as you get to the house.”
I said, “I’m not saying, and you can’t talk. I didn’t see you at school.”
“I don’t get up of a morning, like some, studying school.”
“You think you can turn out, playing in a filthy hole? You look like you’d be in my grade, unless you were left back. You been left back?”
“No,” he said, “I’m the right age, covering from the fever is all. I’ll be over by there directly. Mama said I could go when I felt like it. I might feel like it tomorrow, I may not.”
“You must be Ephraim,” I said. “The teacher called out your name and marked you absent. People told her you’d had a temperature.”
“I did,” he said, “but not now.”
“Then you ought to report tomorrow,” I said. “You don’t want to get off to the wrong start. Wouldn’t you hate not to turn out? My father’s the principal over by the military school, and before we left Athens, he said the public school I’d have to go to had people sixteen in the third grade. I saw a boy with a beard and a mustache playing tetherball today. I might leave and go to the private school in Chattanooga, or I might go to school in England, where my mother’s from.”
“The boy with the hair on his face,” he said, “is slow on account of he didn’t get his air being born, but if he could think to know where England or Tennessee was, he’d wish you happy travels.”
When I laughed, a hard shell around him cracked, letting out a sudden brightness, as he said, “You thought about taking snuff or something to take the gleaming glare off your teeth? You always so shiny in the face? I bet you stay clean. I took and saved up for some Ipana, but the man came to the door with a parakeet in a suitcase the other day and asked me what I’d give him for it. Your family use Ipana? Your mama got nice teeth? It was some English that kept house that summer my mama cooked in Atlanta, eight, nine of them, and three, four right teeth in their head if you could of stomached counting. I got to sleep on a feather mattress, though.”
Before I could ask for details, his thin, large-eyed mother came outside and stood by him, holding a square of calico, and as she opened it and sorted out a few nickels and pennies, she smiled at me, saying, “I heard it was a new family down the road. You must be the girl. I need to send Ephraim to the store after a snack of supper, if you care to walk with him.”
I was clueless as to what grade of supper could be bought for the eighteen cents she warned him not to lose along the way or waste on another trick bird. He stood and brushed dirt off his long legs and combed his fingers through an unruly head of dusty black hair, telling his mother, “Last time, they said they’d let me get some Ipana on time. I wish you’d allow it.”
When she said they weren’t buying tooth powder on credit, explaining how that kind of lax attitude about finances was what had condemned her to work like an animal since his father died and left them under a burden of debts, I took the time to consider the ridges on his fingernails, how deeply furrowed they were, like the plowed field across the road. And even though everyone our age was snaggle-toothed, his few stray crooks of outsize permanent teeth appeared to be coming in rotten.
Noticing me inspecting, his mother said, “He still looks a little catching, but he’s stopped being, so you won’t get something on the way to the store. When you get there, I’d appreciate it if you stood behind him and didn’t let the man sell him casings and call it sausage, like he did the other day.”
“I know how to speak up,” Ephraim told her.
“Oh,” I said, “I didn’t speak up my name. It’s Katy, and I’d like to go, but I should be going home now.”
I couldn’t say my mother was making a pork loin and a chocolate cake for my and my father’s first school days, or that she was serving dinner early to allow time to drive to the dime store for fresh notebooks, lead, and all the other merchandise I’d been fantasizing about that would amount to a total of a great deal more than eighteen cents. I didn’t know about country people and their food habits and home ways, but I understood from Ephraim’s sudden, irritated distraction that he was probably regarding how unnecessarily greedy the clerk had been to rook a woman and a child out of a dime’s worth of nourishment and how he should’ve spoken up against it, or maybe how the casings had slipped around in his mouth.
My father had just finished an advanced degree in secondary education from the University of Georgia and taken on a small, new academy for problem boys, and my mother had been raised on Edgewater Road in London. Her par- ents had been domestics, but my meaning is she was wholly unfamiliar with the fatalistic outlook of rural people who’re extremely clever and efficient at enduring hunger, heat, disease, and poverty but too paralyzed to change anything. That was what I heard when Ephraim’s mother told him, “You need to run on by yourself, then, and if you can’t get anything but what amounts to nothing, make sure to get a cracker to go with it.”
It was going to be an awful errand. I blurted, “If you want to come to my house and let me catch you up on school, you could stay and eat supper.”
When his mother asked him if that’s what he wanted to do, he said, “No, but I might.” She looked at me hard as we were walking away, wondering, I know now, if he was going to return from my ideal environment despising her.
Since our move, my mother had occupied herself with transforming the depression that had begun washing over her in sick waves early in 1925, when my father announced the summer move to north Georgia, which had a reputation for being grindingly impoverished. On the rattling drive down, she’d mournfully narrated the scenery, stark one minute and in chaotic disrepair the next; but in the five or six weeks we’d been living there, her impulsive generosity had sent her into the same falling-down houses she’d criticized with buckets of eggs, sides of ham, bottles of Mercurochrome, and in several cases the county health nurse. Had she come across Ephraim before I did, she would’ve had him at our table earlier.
She and my father made certain dinner went off normally, and they made Ephraim comfortable. He didn’t despise his mother when he returned to his house; he wasn’t capable of it. Later, he told me he’d actually felt a little better there, knowing he was continually welcomed to the food and love at mine, and also because we’d come to the agreement that first evening, without having to mention any word pertaining to it, that we were friends, in the deepest order of love—indefinitely, for good, infinitely.